ECOS 38 (1): Hard Brexit – Soft Rewilding?

Ideological challenges to nature conservation are nothing new, but now they can take different guises in the context of Brexit and in the (perhaps wilful) distortion of rewilding.

 Confronting green agendas

On 30 January 2017, the Times published a leading commentary by Matt Ridley titled ‘Brexit will boost our green and pleasant land‘. I penned much of what follows in an attempt to reach The Times readership, because Ridley plays fast and loose with facts. He is far from uninformed, being both a landowner, an Oxford zoologist by training, and a member of the House of Lords. I always find his environmental views dauntingly well-argued and seldom see anyone matching them getting access to the media in the way he does. He is part of the growing backlash against the environmental movement arguing that such issues as acid raid, DDT, anti-nuclear campaigns and the ‘war on climate’ are all over-hyped and back the left-liberal greenies efforts to push for a command-and-control economy. The global treaties on climate are often in his sights. Unfortunately, I think he is right on the topic of climate, and when the frost settles (as I believe the data shows it will), there is a risk that he and the interests he represents will claim the whole field, and progressive environmental reforms will be shouted down.

Ridley in the Times argues for the status quo in farming and wildlife conservation, urging  government to ignore the more radical ideas of rewilding and continue the tested relationship of agri-environment schemes after Brexit. He argues for localised policies, grouse-shoots, killing foxes and crows to protect lapwings, and domestic grazing of the hills to keep them open for walkers. However, there are a number of misapprehensions in his analysis. Current safeguards for wildlife have had mixed success and the shining example of Philip Merricks’ work across Kent marshlands is hardly representative of the majority of British farmland,  where bird numbers in particular have been in continual decline. The more wildlife-friendly agri-environment schemes cover too small an area and do not redress the widespread losses over the past 50 years. Species diversity is the index that Ridley uses to berate rewilding. But it is not the only measure – abundance is important, and largely lost from our experience of nature and the great outdoors. We have lost very few species, but abundance of many on farmland has dropped by between 50-80% in the past 30 years.

Rewilding can help. However, the rewilding movement in Britain has a long history that is not always acknowledged by more recent advocates. Those who advocate a strong push for large-scale abandonment of farming and the return of wolf, lynx and bear, can get more notice than the voices which prefer a slow and steady re-creation of wilder landscapes and re-introductions.

Re-introduction of Eurasian lynx in the Jura mountains, Switzerland. Photo: KORA

Wild gradations

The spectacle of abundance and the charisma of keystone species is of greater general interest than biodiversity indices. Nor is the number of species, some often obscure and hard to tell apart, necessarily a guide to an ecologically sustainable landscape. If some large areas of the English or Welsh uplands were to be planted with native woodland and then grazed by introduced natural grazers – such as Exmoor ponies and herds of red deer, together with lynx as a predator, then a mosaic of habitats would result and some open-country species would decline and other woodland and scrub species increase. However, the overall majesty of an extensive forest with charismatic wild animals rather than domestic stock, generating new experiences, and its own dynamic of walkers, photographers, artists and wildlife enthusiasts, would hardly measure on an old-school conservationist’s index of what is good, and what to aim for.

That is the essence of the rewilding argument – a movement toward a wilder Britain, something not easily measured, but clearly tangible when experienced. It does entail less micro-management, but is not entirely hands-off either. Planting programmes would be required and these already involve innumerable small-scale seed collecting and community nurseries, mostly voluntary, but often grant-aided and feeding into the local economy.

No sensible rewilding advocates have called for a complete absence of economic activity in the hills, nor for wolves or bears in England or Wales. Wolves but not bears would find enough space and natural prey in Scotland, should the political barriers be surmountable – in my view, highly unlikely. No wolves have been deliberately re-introduced anywhere in Europe. The expansion of this species into Germany from Poland, and into France from Italy, has been a natural reclaiming of former territory. Lynx, however, have been successfully re-introduced to Switzerland, Germany and France.

Radical policy shifts or pragmatic refinements?

In my 2005 book, Beyond Conservation, I reviewed most of British and European rewilding practice for BANC, who then brought together all of the projects and their practitioners in a network of shared experience. This culminated in setting up the Wildland Research Institute in Leeds University, and a series of regional seminars and national conferences bringing together all interested parties – including many traditional conservationists. The conservation paradigm has been shifting, with the National Trust, Forestry Commission and John Muir Trust slowly changing their management practices. There is a general recognition that some wild but empty landscapes currently grazed by domestic stock would have a lot more to offer if reforested and restocked with wild grazers, and with beavers buffering flood risks.

Not one of these bodies of practitioners has advocated the removal of hill-farming subsidies and disbanding the upland communities that depend upon them. There is actually space for both in Britain, and in my book I advocated one large-scale landscape scheme for Wales, England and Scotland, making use of contiguous influence of, for example, Forestry Commission and National Trust tracts of land which link together. Outside of these truly wildland areas, hill farming would still provide its mosaic of habitats, but improved by streamside planting, lower grazing intensity, replacement of some sheep by special breeds of cattle and most important a re-focus of farms and a restructuring of subsidy to reflect a broader public interest. Currently, there is no subsidy for wildland and natural grazers. In any case, upland farming communities are stressed by low income and lack of recruitment as farmers retire – they need a new model.

Contrasting grazing effects on vegetation in Snowdonia. Photo: Peter Taylor

Organic renewal of nature

There is also a lowland rewilding in progress. The Great Fen Project in East Anglia and the Avalon Marshes Project in Somerset involve several organisations buying adjacent farmland and reverting to fen, with re-introductions of crane and colonisation by marsh harrier and egrets. But the single most powerful shift of paradigm – one that would see more farmworkers, more people living on the land, and more wildlife close to urban centres, would be an extension of organic food production. Organic farms are richer in herbs, seed-bearing grasses, hence butterflies and birds – the richness that I can remember as a boy.

The agricultural industry has resisted the organic movement, regarding it as a food fad and niche market. And the supermarket chains with their continual pressure for least-cost food production pander to the ideals of cheap food. Low-cost food means an impoverished landscape. Dietary choices largely determine the countryside and its wildlife.

There are broader psychological reasons for rewilding landscapes than can be accounted in biodiversity indicies. Herds of deer running wild and free, the howl of a wolf, the flight of an eagle, the rise of a lark in the morning or clouds of butterflies dancing in the summer sun – these feed the soul, and we can bring them back at relatively little cost and with cooperation of all parties currently managing our landscape.

Feed your ideology

The above arguments were my response to Matt Ridley’s, but unpublished by The Times. I would add that there is something disingenuous about arguing for agri-environment schemes that he must know can never be scaled up because government will not meet the costs. He claims that it is ‘technology’ that has led to a 70% reduction in the land needed for a given food production – whereas more likely it is the loss of fallow land practice, silage production from monoculture rye grass, confining animals indoors and feeding them imported grain. I would like to see regulation not voluntary agreements – on streamside protection and field margins, hedgerow trimming and above all, organic production. I don’t know how free a new and independent Britain will be to introduce legislation considering trade agreements and competition – perhaps this would be a useful point for a BANC discussion.

Finally, I would like to see a mobilisation of wildlife lovers – across the spectrum (RSPB, National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust etc)… which runs to several million people, not campaigning for regulation as that will fall on deaf ears, but changing their own purchasing habits, buying organic and local – making it a discipline, and making savings elsewhere. Farmers would soon enough respond to a shift in the market. And to get motivated and visit an organic farm this year.

Some people favour moving purely within the conservation paradigm precisely because the rewilding concept has engendered conflict. That is a pity, since the practitioners on the ground have from the very beginning sought to avoid it. Most of those taking extremist misanthropic views where people are unwelcome in the landscape (walkers as well as farmers), do so from their armchairs, or writer’s desks, or academic tower blocks. In the past few years we have witnessed a serial hi-jacking, ever since one of the Millibands used the R word – first by academics talking up the extremes, then journalists formenting conflict and most recently, philosophers disturbed by the lack of definition. The newcomers rarely reference the BANC and ECOS literature. That reveals that many of us prefer wildland without definable outcomes, on all scales from 10% of the back-garden, the return of a river meander, a two-metre unkept field-margin, all the way to expansive experiments such as Ennerdale in Cumbria. Rewilding is a process of action with feedbacks into the human psyche and as such, cannot be readily measured and defined. Many of us have worked hard to make it a cooperative venture, caring more for the diversity of human interactions with the landscape than an ultimately meaningless counting of species. There may well be greater public interest but it needs to translate into action on the ground and above all, engagement in the process.

Peter Taylor

Peter Taylor’s most recent work The Spirit of Rewilding was published in 2017. His 2011 edited volume, Rewilding, is available from BANC publications.

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Taylor, Peter “ECOS 38 (1): Hard Brexit – Soft Rewilding?” ECOS vol. 38(1), 2017, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

4 thoughts on “ECOS 38 (1): Hard Brexit – Soft Rewilding?

  1. Adrian P says:

    Peter: once again you diminish a good argument by pursuing your idiosyncratic line on climate change. You say: “The global treaties on climate are often in his (Ridley’s) sights. Unfortunately, I think he is right on the topic of climate, and when the frost settles (as I believe the data shows it will), there is a risk that he and the interests he represents will claim the whole field, and progressive environmental reforms will be shouted down”. How much longer do we have to wait for your promised cooling to show up in the data? Why do you want to keep company with Ridley, James Delingpole and Scott Pruitt on this? But the rest of your article I like!

  2. David B says:

    It is indeed a huge shame that Guardianista-types have cottoned on to ‘re-wildling’ as something that will enhance their columns and after-dinner speeches. My own learning began in Findhorn (2005?) where I found many people who actually saw the world as I did. That was a revelation (although accompanied by an increasing wave of panic as I realised that the cafeteria was wholly vegetarian). Since then, I have been working in the world that Peter describes as “agri-environment schemes … grouse shoots and killing foxes to save lapwings …” (apols for partial quote). It has changed and grown my views and confidence in re-wilding. I remember Frans Vera, while at a meeting at Knepp Castle, insisting that to attempt re-wildling at a scale under 30,000 ha was not possible. I agreed at the time, but don’t now. There are some great examples of smaller scale and partial re-wildling that have brought considerable benefits – maybe we need another compendium?

  3. Matthew K says:

    As an academic who has an interest in this debate, I’ve tried not to be one who ‘talked up the extremes’, instead attempt to articulate a more consensual position, most obviously in my book Quartz and Feldspar. Dartmoor: A British Landscape in Modern Times (2015). I discussed Peter’s work there and in the 2016 paperback revision I suggested ‘soft rewilding’ as a plausible aim. I’ve also tried to provide some historical perspective on the issue here:

  4. Peter T says:

    Please excuse the inordinate delay in my responses. Adrian – I had to look up idiosyncratic, as I was not sure, thinking it might be linked to idiotic! From the Greek, idios, meaning one’s own mind, hence individualistic, but the relief comes from….’The best minds are idiosyncratic and unpredictable as they follow the course of scientific discovery’

    Before proceeding on matters Ridley, Delingpole and Pruitt, I would like to clarify a couple of things. First, I am not the only idiosyncratic who is following where the science leads. I will name just three: Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at University of Alabama, Huntsville – one of two departments in the USA trusted to process the NASA satellite data on global temperatures (the other is a private group: Remote Sensing Systems), such that scientific requirements of plurality are met – John Christy, sometime member also of the IPCC; Professor Syun ichi Akasofu, former director of the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Fairbanks; Professor W.Jackson Davis, co-author of the Kyoto Protocol, involved in setting up the UN climate convention at which he represented the Pacific Island States.

    There are many others, but I select these three because: 1) Christy was about to be interviewed by the BBC, and their leading science correspondent – Roger Harrabin, called me before hand, having read and admired my book ‘Chill: a reassessment of global warming theory’ – and asked what questions should he put. I replied – ‘for goodness sake, don’t ask ‘is global warming happening, or do humans contribute – of course it is and of course they do – the real question is HOW MUCH IS NATURAL and how much humn-induced?’ Christy’s reply was 75%….pretty much the same as my conclusion from the atmospheric science data. The interview is on record. By the Way – the 97% of scientists so often quoted as a consensus, were collated on the first two questions only. The real issue is the MAIN driving force, as this determines the effective of mitigation strategies – and my idiosyncratic argument that they look a lot worse fro the environment than what they attempt to cure. Akasofu was my source of confirmation that the Arctic is subject to ‘cyclic’ meltdowns – and that it was now in the middle of a predictable natural warm period. Davis I choose because we worked together on reforming the UN’s approach to marine science and pollution – at a time when I was directly employed to help them. As you can imagine he at first thought there was no way I could be right – but he had never looked at the DATA. He endorsed my book saying my questions had to be answered. A year later, I went with him to the top US climate laboratory and we met with their leading modellers. After that encounter, Davis was convinced I was right. The modellers also began to incorporate some of the things in my book – like solar magnetic cycles and UV-flux, and in 2012/13 released papers looking at what would happen to global temperatures if we entered another Maunder Minimum (low magnetics) as many solar scientists now think we will – they concluded there would be some cooling to 2060, before warming resumed. I still take issue with the resumption assumptions, but to argue the point I would need my own team of modellers. I have had such before (on nuclear accident modelling) but this time the MetOffice refused to play ball and release their models.

    Now to Ridley and Pruitt – I don’t follow Delingpole. Ridley is very astute – a doctoral level scientist. He has access to the same sources that I do. He also writes a column in the Times. And he recently addressed a full-house scientific meeting of the Royal Society – I recommend the you-tube version. He is influential. Pruitt recently defended his stance by saying that the human contribution to warming was uncertain – not that it did not exist, but that there was debate about the size of it. Pruitt is busy dismantling the EPA. Ridley has the ear of the UK government and many there who would like to dismantle environmental regulations – but he supports farm subsidies if they are environmentally focussed. He supports GMOs and nuclear power and thinks most environmental campaigns were scaremongering.

    I don’t ‘keep company’ with Ridley or Pruitt. I warned almost ten years ago, the ‘enemies’ of environmentalism unfortunately had the truth on their side where climate was concerned. Nobody listened – or rather, no ‘greens’ listened. I warned that if the truth came out, as with science it usually does, these enemies would have a very powerful weapon. That is now what is happening in the USA. I can happen here under a conservative government.

    And now fore the ‘promised cooling’. What I actually said was that ‘unless there is another big El Nino, cooling will be evident’. The very big Nino in 15/16 is now over and about 0.6C has been lost (Ninos represent heat leaving the planet, but the surface warms before the heat disperses – via the poles). The Sun is now bottom-lining on UV emissions – which will lead to a loosening of the polar jetstreams and gradual ocean cooling – with heatwaves, wildfires, droughts and torrential rain in places during the summers, and severe cold in winter. Whether I (and others) are right about this will be evident by 2020, the bottom of the current solar cycle, or maybe not until the next cycle 11 years later. Arctic sub–surface ocean temperatures have been cooling now for three years, but slow jetstreams have sent lots of warm Nino air up there.

    Most crucially, I ask in response: should a scientist go with his conclusions from data or with the authority of those above him? Should he or she self suppress findings for political motives (ie green campaigning) or the reputation of his organisation (BANC and ECOS)? Or to avoid the vitriol of some (not in ECOS but certainly a lot elsewhere)?

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